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Recent problems shine spotlight on aging pipelines

| Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010

NEW YORK - The gas pipe explosion last week in a San Francisco suburb, along with an oil pipeline leak near Chicago, will likely draw regulators' attention to fuel transportation networks, some of which have been in service more than four decades.

Four people have been confirmed dead, four are missing and dozens of homes and vehicles were damaged Thursday when a 54-year-old PG&E Corp. natural-gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno. The blast occurred a day after an Enbridge Inc. crude-oil line leaked near Chicago, forcing a shutdown and threatening fuel supplies in the Midwest. The Enbridge pipe, which can handle 670,000 barrels a day, started service in 1968.

The United States is crisscrossed with more than 2.5 million miles of fuel pipelines, enough to circle the earth about 100 times. Federal regulators might now step up inspections and increase the industry's maintenance costs, said Mark Easterbrook, a pipelines analyst with RBC Capital Markets in Dallas.

"Regulators will probably look for more integrity spending on pipelines," Easterbrook said. "We're probably going to see incremental increases in the future, with more attention on older pipelines."

Much of the nation's underground infrastructure, which includes water and sewer pipes, has been in use for more than 50 years and needs to be evaluated and, where needed, replaced, said Blaine Leonard, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"Just because it's old doesn't mean it's in bad shape, but the risk is certainly increased," Leonard, a civil engineer in Utah, said. "There's a lot of hidden infrastructure and we can't be complacent about it. So much of our economy and quality of life depends on it."

The PG&E pipeline that exploded last week in San Bruno was built in 1956, according to Ted Lopatkiewicz, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is overseeing all probes into the incident. Investigators haven't yet pinpointed the cause of the San Bruno blast.

Enbridge's closed pipe is part of the Lakehead System that started service in the 1950s to carry crude oil to refineries in the Midwest from Canada and transport products such as gasoline and jet fuel.

"Older pipelines are much more at risk because we didn't have the protective technology that we do now," Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said. "Old pipes had either no corrosion protection or were wrapped with material that looked like tar paper."

Pipelines can be inspected using devices called pigs that run through sections of pipe, deploying sensors and cameras to detect cracks, corrosion and other defects from the interior. Companies can also pump fluids through the pipe at high pressure to test integrity, or dig up sections for visual inspections.

But the lack of computerized records for much of the U.S. pipeline network complicates efforts, said Weimer, whose Bellingham, Wash.-based organization monitors and advocates for pipeline safety.

"There is a lot of historical data that has been lost," he said.

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